Exploring VCU's unbelievable run from the bubble to the Final Four
SAN ANTONIO -- On Selection Sunday night, VCU senior guard Ed Nixon was glued to his television. Despite the weeklong insistence of Nixon's roommate, point guard and team bracketologist Joey Rodriguez, that the Rams would make it into the NCAAs, VCU was a very borderline at-large case.
When the Rams did pop up in the official bracket, paired with USC in a First Four matchup in Dayton, Rodriguez started shouting and slamming on other doors in the apartment. The commotion startled Nixon, who had been immersed in an episode of
Scarred by the experience of watching the 2008 show with then-coach Anthony Grant, when the Rams were bypassed for an at-large, Nixon couldn't bring himself to dream again. The taunting chant of "NIT! NIT!" from Old Dominion's fans after the Monarchs beat VCU for the Colonial tournament title still resonated painfully. Teammate Brandon Rozzell also was in the apartment, but he was doing homework with his own door closed. He didn't want to watch, either.
Then again, they both knew they could rely on Rodriguez, who's as gregarious as he is unsubtle.
"Soon as I heard him screaming like that, I knew what happened. I knew he was watching," Nixon said.
The story of VCU's stunning run from the First Four to Houston has to start with its inclusion in the bracket, which was hotly debated on that fateful evening 15 days ago. Ironically, the selection that few Rams believed would happen now stands as the most likely part of the journey that has made them the most improbable Final Four team ever. Any individual note used to qualify their accomplishment is enough to underscore its absurdity, but in composite, the picture is staggering:
• The Rams finished fourth in the Colonial, a whopping four games behind league champ George Mason after losing their last four regular-season conference games.
• Almost assuredly one of the final three teams in, the Rams would not have made the field in any year before 2011 and the expansion to 68 teams.
• Ken Pomeroy's pre-tourney estimates had VCU making the Final Four three times out of every 10,000 iterations, in part because of that additional First Four game. The Rams were a 1-in-203,187 shot to win it all. In comparison, Butler -- itself a highly improbable Final Four team -- was 100 to 1 to make it there and around 2,500 to 1 to win the title. In other words, the extremely long shot Bulldogs were 81 times more likely to be national champ than VCU.
• VCU beat teams from the Pac-10, Big East, Big Ten, ACC and Big 12 to make it to Houston (and potentially could beat SEC tourney champ Kentucky in a title game to finish off the BCS sweep). Four of those five wins were by double digits.
• The Rams' season high for three-pointers made was 12, accomplished on three occasions. All three (Georgetown, Florida State and Kansas) happened in the NCAA tournament.
Then you can dig into the quantitative side of things, and the picture becomes even more amazing.
The Rams were such a statistical long shot in KenPom's world because they were, by far, the weakest at-large team included in the field, 27 spots lower than the second-weakest selection, Georgia. The main reasons for the tempered billing were that VCU was not a good defensive team (ranking outside the top 100 in defensive efficiency when the NCAAs started) and was a horrible rebounding team (opponents collect a crippling 36 percent of their own misses).
In 13 of their last 14 games before the NCAAs, the Rams allowed opponents to break the point-per-possession barrier (close to the Division I average). Seven of those games were above 1.10, which is more or less getting lit up. There was legitimate reason for their season-ending slide.
So, what happened when the Rams hit Dayton? Seemingly out of nowhere, they morphed into a ridiculously effective defensive team that also became searing hot from the perimeter. Here's a look at the five games (data from box scores and KenPom.com):
The Rams surpassed their season average from the arc in every game, had a better effective field-goal percentage (which accounts for the value of threes) in the last four games, had a much better actual defensive efficiency rating in four of the games and, in relative terms, held three of the opponents insanely below their season's efficiency averages. With the 69 possessions in the Kansas game, VCU held the Jayhawks 20 points below normal expectation, a truly staggering figure.
"We went through some adversity this year, as most teams did," VCU coach Shaka Smart said after Sunday's incredible upset of the Jayhawks. "We weren't 35-2 coming into this game, but we're playing our best basketball when it matters most, and that's why I'm sitting here right now with a net around my neck."
It's fair to note that Georgetown, Purdue and Florida State were all impacted to a degree by injury or suspension, but that doesn't explain VCU's dominance in this span. Again, they won four of their five tournament games by double digits, which is more like a No. 1 seed's performance than an 11's.
At the end of the day, there's really no way to explain it in one easy brush stroke. The nature of a knockout tournament produces unexpected results, but not in a sequence this long and not in such decisive fashion from an underdog. Basically, the Rams got a draw that, in retrospect, fit very well with what they like to do and then caught lightning in a bottle, using a relaxed, nothing-to-lose attitude and the motivation of pundits' scorn to transform into something special.
"When you have a senior-laden team like we do," Smart said, "you have an opportunity to go on a run like this, because we have as much experience as anybody we're going to play."
Over this magical fortnight, doubters have called VCU just about everything in the book, but now there's only one label that matters: The Rams are a Final Four team, with a chance to win it all.